Updated (May 21, 2018): The following interview originally took place in March 2018 prior to the Gyms Rats screening at AreaWorks in Shanghai. We’ve updated the screening and ticket information at the bottom of the article ahead of the film’s June 2nd, 2018 screening as part of this year’s Beijing Indie Short Film Festival.
EastIndie: How long have you been in Shanghai and what are you doing here when you’re not writing and directing films?
Mackey Landy: I’ve been in Shanghai for about two years. I’d been studying the language on-and-off for a while and just found myself drawn to life here. I’m currently here because of a master’s program at Shanghai Theatre Academy. I wanted to be associated with an artistic community and found that the program brought me to a place with such creative energy.
EI: What has your experience at STA been like so far?
ML: It’s been great. Again, just being around so many people working on so many things—I love that. I’m someone who is very affected by my surroundings, so I felt it was vital to be in a creative place in order to feel creative. I didn’t know much about what was happening in less mainstream Chinese art—and specifically in Chinese independent film—and STA has been a great place to get to know that community. It’s an exciting place and you can feel that.
EI: You’re latest project, Gym Rats, follows a group of overly-enthusiastic workout nuts whose tendency to get carried away lands them in some deep trouble. Where did you get the idea for the film?
ML: My friend Patrick Ip (who also appears as one of the actors in the film) is quite a gym-savvy person and the few times I went to the gym with him, it was like he was the king there. He was always the guy to psych people up and make them work harder. He’s loud. Plus, he was born and raised in Hong Kong, so people always joke around with him about his accent. There was just something funny to me about it and the idea grew from there.
EI: What was the most exciting part for you about working on the film?
ML: Well, I love directing. It’s terrifying and I’m constantly on edge, but it’s so satisfying and kinetic. I particularly liked directing this film, because almost everything is in Chinese. I love comedy and I wanted to see if my brand of comedy would gel with a Chinese story and Chinese language. It was a huge team effort though and going through that process as the director was very exciting and interesting.
I needed to know that the crew found it funny and that they connected with the story.
EI: As a non-Chinese filmmaker (and a non-native-Chinese speaker), what level of complexity did that add to the whole process of writing and directing a film in Chinese?
ML: I was—and still am—concerned if this is my story to tell. As a non-Chinese filmmaker, is it my place to tell a Chinese story with Chinese actors? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that it has been done before by countless filmmakers and artists from countless countries. I also think there’s something to be said about the fact that, as an outsider, I may have a unique view of the inside. But, of course, it was vital for me to have people like Patrick and other friends to help me along the process to tell me if things made sense and so on.
EI: What was the process of developing the story and the characters like?
ML: Especially because the characters are very stereotypical caricatures, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t write blatantly offensive characters. To that extent, I also felt it was important to have a foreign character—as my own stand in—that I could literally kill and torment. I wrote the script first in English and it was then translated for the cast and crew to read. I was concerned a lot might get lost in translation, so having those conversations before the shoot was important. I needed to know that the crew found it funny and that they connected with the story because, after all, they’re the demographic I wanted to write for.
EI: In your experience, are there any differences in the way Chinese and foreign cast and crew operate on set?
ML: In some ways, there are many things we all did differently in our approach to work, but in others ways, once the lights were on and the camera was rolling, it was just your typical film set. But, I will say in my time being in China and working in film, it seems that the days on set are typically way longer than the average day on set in America. On this shoot, that was cool with me, because I knew we had a lot to shoot and limited time. I was happy to have sixteen-or-seventeen-hour days, but I know most of the others weren’t, of course.
EI: What film-making lessons have you taken away from making the film?
ML: I guess the biggest lesson I can think of for now, is that I just feel a lot more confident as a storyteller—as in, I’m not as afraid or constantly second guessing myself as a foreign filmmaker in China. Of course, there are universal truths that you can draw upon—like, surround yourself with a cast and crew that you admire and trust and work together as a team. This is why I think Gym Rats works.
If people laugh, relate, and want more, then I feel we totally succeeded.
EI: What are your plans for Gym Rats now that the film has been completed?
ML: For now, I want to screen it as much as possible. Seeing it with people and laughing together is the best. I also want to do much more with it and really develop it into a full-fledged, funded web series. In the credits at the end, it says, “The gym rats will return…”, and I put that in for myself as a way to keep pushing myself to continue working on it and keep these characters and this world alive. I think it has a lot of potential and I want to see Gym Rats become something much bigger.
EI: What do you hope people will get out of seeing the film?
ML: Honestly, I just hope the audience has a good time. We set out to make a funny, unique short film, and I feel pretty good about what we accomplished. It’s not a perfect film, but that was never the intention. I want people to feel like they’ve seen these characters before in their own lives, they feel they know these people, and these kind of places, and these kind of problems (though hopefully not all of them). If people laugh, relate, and want more, then I feel we totally succeeded.
EI: What other stuff are you working on these days?
ML: Lots! I’m finishing up a script right now for a more dramatic short, working on a dance film with a great choreographer, and a few other things that are coming up this spring and summer. I’m a bit worried I’m stretching myself too thin, but these are good problems to have, and I find I’m more productive when I’m busy. It also seems there are so many people hungry to create and willing to collaborate. I love that about Shanghai and it makes me really happy knowing that there are people from all over the place here to support.
EI: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
ML: I’d just really like to thank the cast and crew for coming together and working so hard on this crazy project. Everyone was so in it and were just killing it from day one. They supported my vision, were always on time, and did great work. What more could I want?
Updated (May 21, 2018): Gym Rats will be screening on Saturday, June 2nd, 2018 as part of this year’s Beijing Indie Short Film Festival at Camera Stylo (64 Dongsishiyitiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing 北京东城区东四十一条64号). Get your tickets here.